How to get
along when we don’t see eye to eye
National Geographic had a poignant article recently about the fossils of two saber-tooth cats discovered locked in combat. To quote the article: “One had bitten deep into the leg bone of the other, a thrust that trapped both in a common fate.” The cause of the death of these two big cats is as clear as the cause of the extinction of their species. They could not survive because they were too busy fighting each other. The same can be said of the church today. As the apostle Paul put it: “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5:15).
Satan is a master at using controversial issues to distract the church from her true mission in the world. A former police officer tells of the tactics of a group of thieves: “They enter the store as a group. One or two separate themselves from the group, and the others start a loud commotion in another section of the store. This grabs the attention of the clerks and customers. As all eyes are turned to the disturbance, the accomplices fill their pockets with merchandise and cash, leaving before anyone suspects. Hours -- sometimes even days -- later, the victimized merchant realizes things are missing and calls the police. Too late.” (Tom McHaffie) How often this strategy is used by the Evil One. We are seduced into paying attention to the distractions, while our churches are ransacked. In our case we are in danger of losing not our merchandise, but our mission. And a church without a mission will soon be out of commission. The major realignment occurring in the Anglican Communion, particularly in North America with which we identify, is over the essentials of the Christian faith (see here and here). The German, Rupert Meldenius’ famous phrase, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” best sums up Paul’s teaching in Romans (On the source see here).
Paul tells us that we are to “Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16). But how can we live in harmony when there are so many controversial issues that divide us? Paul gave the church in Rome some practical, step-by-step instructions on how to live in harmony with one another in Romans 14:1-15:7. We can learn from this information because we today have much in common with the Roman church. The Roman church was not divided in their faith. They all believed that Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life and that as such He was the only way to get to heaven. They believed that there was only one God and that Jesus Christ was His Son. They believed that Jesus died for their sins and that He rose again on the third day and that He was coming back again one day. However, they were divided on many nonessential details of the Christian life. There were some in the church who had some very strict convictions concerning things like particular days of worship and types of diets and they considered those who disagreed to be too liberal. Others, however, had an equally strong conviction that in Christ they were free from such constraints and they considered the others to be narrow minded.
As we study Romans 14 together we will discover Paul’s seven steps to H.A.R.M.O.N.Y.
1. Hold back judgment on disputable matters
“Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat everything, but another person, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” (Romans 14:1-2)
God forbids us to pass judgment on matters that are disputable. What is a disputable matter? A disputable matter is an issue on which scripture is not clear or where we are given freedom to decide. The disputable matters to which Paul speaks concern diet and dates. Some believed that certain days like the Sabbath or other religious holidays were to be considered more sacred than others. They also held to certain dietary rules like not eating meat -- probably because the meat in the market place had been offered to idols. Other Christians believed that all days were the same and that if you gave thanks to God for the food there was no problem with eating it and enjoying it. Who was right and who was wrong? Paul says that neither group is wrong because these issues are nonessential to Christian faith and practice. What are some other examples of disputable matters on which Christians fall out over? Frequency of taking the Lord’s Supper, drinking alcohol, child or adult baptism, length of hair, length of clothes, style of music – even the wearing of lipstick. These are all examples of issues that are nonessential to the Christian faith. And yet sadly all of these issues have been sources of division among Christians.
There was a time when Christians killed other Christians because they believed the others baptized incorrectly. When it comes to styles you don’t have to like it, listen to it, or look like it but you cannot judge it. You don’t have to support it, agree with it, or propagate it but you cannot condemn it. If the scriptures do not speak clearly on an issue it is because God has given us freedom to choose. The Roman Christians were free to choose to keep the Sabbath as a sacred day but they were also free to choose to hold all days as the same. The Roman Christians were free to choose not to eat meat but they were also free to choose to eat meat. So, first, hold back judgment on disputable matters.
2. Avoid looking down on those who don’t share your convictions
“The one who eats everything must not treat with
contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not
judge the one who does, for God has accepted that person. Who are you to judge
someone else’s servant? To their own master they stand or fall. And they will
stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” (Romans 14:3-4)
There are many things that Christians are free to do or free not to do, but the one thing we are not free to do is to pass judgment on those who disagree with us. Paul says that the one who is strong in the faith and therefore understands that he is free from legalistic constraints in disputable matters must not look down on those who don’t believe they have such freedom. He also says that those who are weak in the faith and therefore feel that they must follow certain rules must not condemn those who don’t follow their rules.
not? Because the other person is God’s servant not yours. And so they answer
not to you, but to God. And furthermore we see that God has accepted them both.
Therefore, we dare not look down on the one whom God has accepted. I never want
to have fewer brothers and sisters than my Father has sons and daughters. Of
course, we all have a tendency to look down on those who hold different views
than ourselves whether those views be religious or political. So the next time
you are tempted remember what the apostle Paul had to say about himself. “I am
the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle” (1
Corinthians 15:9). “I am less than the least of all God’s people” (Ephesians
3:8). “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners -- of whom I am the
worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). If that was true of the apostle Paul then it is
certainly true of you and so you have no right to look down on anyone. Avoid
looking down on those who don’t share your convictions.
3. Realize that you must live for the Lord alone
“For we do not live to ourselves alone and we do not die to ourselves alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord… So then, we will all give an account of ourselves to God.” (Romans 14:7-8, 12)
We were not put on this earth for the purpose of exercising our freedoms. We are here for one purpose and one purpose only -- to live for the Lord. If we exercise our freedoms, we do so for the Lord. If we adhere to religious convictions, we so do for the Lord. If we live, we live for the Lord. If we die, we die for the Lord. Some people may be offended if you are more concerned with pleasing the Lord than you are with pleasing them, but at least you will have fulfilled your purpose. In recent weeks, I have come in for criticism on the internet for visiting places like Iran and Libya, for sharing platforms with ex-IRA men and Islamists who justify terrorism. That does not mean I endorse their message or their methods. But how else are we going to change their mind unless we engage with them and witness to them. If you can please people and please the Lord at the same time, that is going to be rare. But, when you can’t, make sure that you please the Lord. Paul said, “We make it our goal to please him [God]” (2 Corinthians 5:9). So, realize that you must live for the Lord alone.
4. Make sure you don’t put obstacles in the way of others
“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother or sister for whom Christ died…For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit...” (Romans 14:13-18)
It is true that in Christ we have been set free from the law and legalism, however, we must not flaunt this freedom in the faces of those who we consider weak in the faith. We are to exercise our freedoms and carry out our convictions in ways that do not cause our fellow Christians to stumble. This paragraph is primarily addressed to those who are strong in the faith and have freedom in disputable matters. Faith results in freedom. The stronger the faith, the greater the freedom. The weaker the faith, the smaller the freedom. It is important to notice that Paul says that both groups have faith. In other words both groups have saving faith and are, therefore Christians. It is just that some are stronger in faith than others and those who are stronger in faith must be careful about exercising their freedoms in the presence of those who don’t have such freedom. This is dangerous because if anyone believes something to be wrong then it is wrong for them even if it is not something God’s word forbids. You see, it is a sin to violate your conscience. You must be, as Paul says, “fully convinced.” Because “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (v. 23). So if the exercise of your freedom causes a fellow believer to violate their conscience and sin you have “destroyed your brother for whom Christ died.” Paul includes himself in the group who are strong in the faith and have the freedom to eat anything, but he says that it is better to voluntarily restrict one’s freedom than to cause others to stumble by exercising it. In 1 Corinthians 8:13 he puts it this way: “If what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” Before we move on I want to share a word with those of you who may have had an obstacle placed in your way by someone. The greatness of our lives is often determined by the size of the obstacles we have had to overcome. Let me illustrate:
Bette Nesmith had a good secretarial job in a Dallas bank when she ran across a problem that interested her. Wasn’t there a better way to correct the errors she made on her electric typewriter? Bette had some art experience and she knew that artists who worked in oils just painted over their error. Maybe that would work for her too.
So she concocted a fluid to paint over her typing errors. Before long, all the secretaries in her building were using what she then called “MistakeOut.” She attempted to sell the product idea to marketing agencies and various companies (including IBM), but they turned her down. However, secretaries continued to like her product, so Bette Nesmith’s kitchen became her first manufacturing facility and she started selling it on her own. When Bette Nesmith sold the enterprise, the tiny white bottles were earning $3.5 million annually on sales of $38 million. The buyer was Gillette Company and the sale price was $47.5 million. When it was all said and done that was one obstacle Bette Nesmith was glad she had to face.
Make sure you don’t put obstacles in the way of others.
5. Only do
what leads to peace and mutual edification
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” (Romans 14:19)
What is good is bad if it leads to disharmony and does not build up the church. In Romans 12:18 Paul has already written, “If it is possible as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” He says, “if it is possible” because he knows that it is not always possible to please people. You know the old saying: “You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Well it is also true of pleasing people -- “You can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” But the point is, you need to do your part -- the part that “depends on you.” There’s a poem that expresses this. It is called “A Builder or a Wrecker.”
As I watched them tear a building down
A gang of men in a busy town
With a ho-heave-ho, and a lusty yell
They swung a beam and the side wall fell
I asked the foreman, “Are these men skilled,
And the men you’d hire if you wanted to build?”
He gave a laugh and said, “No, indeed,
Just common labour is all I need.”
“I can easily wreck in a day or two,
What builders have taken years to do.”
And I thought to myself, as I went my way
Which of these roles have I tried to play?
Am I a builder who works with care,
Measuring life by rule and square?
Am I shaping my work to a well-made plan
Patiently doing the best I can?
Or am I a wrecker who walks to town
Content with the labour of tearing down?
“O Lord let my life and labours be
That which will build for eternity”
question is: “Will you and I be a builder or a wrecker?” Only do what leads to
peace and mutual edification.
6. Never publicize your personal convictions
“So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed are those who do not condemn themselves by what they approve” (Romans 14:22)
Why does Paul tell us to keep our personal convictions concerning these matters between ourselves and God? Because our personal convictions are just that -- personal. If they were meant to be corporate God would have put them in His word. But He didn’t. He gave them to you personally and they should stay between the two of you. How often I fast, how long I pray for, how much I tithe, what I have in the way of savings, who I vote for, these are personal and based on God given convictions. They should not be public because they can become divisive. They are personal. Never publicize your personal convictions.
7. Yield personal preferences for the common good
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. We should all please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.” (Romans 5:1-4)
This is really a taster for next Sunday, but it completes this examination of how to achieve harmony within the Church. Paul is saying here that we should not insist on doing things our way. Insisting on doing things my way is the world’s way, not the Christian’s way. Paul holds up Jesus Christ as the ultimate example of someone who, rather than pleasing Himself, gave up His personal preferences for the good of mankind. We know from the scriptures that it was not Jesus’ personal preference to suffer and die on the cross. When He was praying in the garden prior to His arrest He asked God if it would be possible for that cup of suffering to pass from Him. However, He also prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” If Jesus didn’t insist on His way, how can we insist on our way? In the summer of 1986, two ships collided in the Black Sea off the coast of Russia. Hundreds of passengers died as they were hurled into the icy waters below. News of the disaster was further darkened when an investigation revealed the cause of the accident. It wasn’t a technology problem like radar malfunction -- or even thick fog. The cause was human stubbornness. Each captain was aware of the other ship’s presence nearby. Both could have steered clear, but according to news reports, neither captain wanted to give way to the other. Each was too proud to yield first. By the time they came to their senses, it was too late. During World War II, Hitler commanded all religious groups to unite to that he could control them. Among the Brethren assemblies, half complied and half refused. Those who went along with the order had a much easier time. Those who did not, faced harsh persecution. In almost every family of those who resisted, someone died in a concentration camp. When the war was over, feelings of bitterness ran deep between the groups and there was much tension. Finally they decided that the situation had to be healed. Leaders from each group met at a quiet retreat. For several days, each person spent time in prayer, examining his own heart in the light of Christ’s commands. Then they came together.
Francis Schaeffer, who told of the incident, asked a friend who was there, “What did you do then?” “We were just one,” he replied. As they confessed their hostility and bitterness to God and yielded to His control, the Holy Spirit created a spirit of unity among them. Love filled their hearts and dissolved their hatred. Harmony.
Hold back judgment on disputable matters.
2. Avoid looking down on those who don’t share your convictions.
3. Realize that you must live for the Lord alone.
4. Make sure you don’t put obstacles in the way of others.
Only do what leads to peace and mutual edification.
6. Never publicize your personal convictions.
7. Yield personal preferences for the common good.
That is what God longs for among his children. Our unity is a reflection on Jesus. In his great prayer on John 17, Jesus prayed,
“I pray… that all of them may be one just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-22)
The question is: What will Christ Church present to the world?
I preached this sermon a few years ago and remember borrowing some of the material but sadly can't attribute it. If you recognise any of it or can point me in the right direction, I will gladly attribute the inspiration where it is due.